Members of Congress Attempt to Dilute Clean Water Act

Proposed Bills Would Remove Checks
and Balances over Army Corps Permits

February 1, 2011

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JW Randolph, Legislative Associate… 202-669-3670,
Sandra Diaz, Director of Communications… 828-262-1500,
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Environmental justice groups and clean water advocates are expressing outrage over congressional attempts to weaken the Clean Water Act.

Two bills recently introduced in the U.S. House would remove a long-standing but rarely-used tool by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to perform its function in protecting human health through safeguarding the nation’s waterways.

H.R. 517, introduced by Don Young (R-AK) would strip the EPA’s veto authority and H.R. 457, introduced by freshman Dave McKinley (R-WV) would disallow the EPA to veto any bill after an Army Corps permit has already been issued. Opponents to H.R. 457 fear that this bill would encourage the Army Corps to rush to approve permits for which the EPA may have environmental concerns.

West Virginia’s Joe Manchin has talked about introducing similar legislation in the Senate.

“The Clean Water Act is an American institution and any attempt to weaken this keystone legislation should be met with strong protest,” says Willa Mays, Executive Director of Appalachian Voices, an environmental non-profit concerned with air and water quality in the central and southern Appalachians. “As a nation we have decided that clean water is a fundamental right.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is the agency responsible for approving “dredge and fill” permits that allow companies to fill in waterways for construction, mining and other activities. The EPA currently has the authority—under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act—to veto projects the agency deems to have “unacceptable adverse impacts” on the nation’s waterways.

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The EPA has exercised its veto authority only 13 times since 1972; the Army Corps processes almost 60,000 of these permits per year. The most recent use of this authority was in the case of the proposed Spruce No. 1 mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia, which would have buried six miles of streams with mining waste, polluted miles of downstream waterways, and according to the EPA in their final determination on the permit, would “eliminate all fish, small invertebrates, salamanders, and other wildlife that live in them.”

The two bills introduced, however, would have broad national implications beyond mountaintop removal mining.

“From the St John’s River to the Everglades National Park, the weakening of the Clean Water Act will mean that these waterways, which are as important to Florida as they are to the nation, will lose a level of protection that cannot be afforded,” says Susan Clary, Vice-Chair of the Orange Soil and Water Conservation District in Florida.

“In Illinois, the longwall mining practiced by the coal industry pollutes water and damages our farmland, forests, natural watercourses and communities,” said Traci Barkley, Water Resources Scientist for Prairie Rivers Network. “We are encouraged to see [the] U.S. EPA exercising their full authority under the Clean Water Act to protect clean water from the coal companies that want to dig their treasure and leave the mess behind.”

The Clean Water Act became law in 1972 under the Nixon Administration and provides protection for the nation’s waterways. Before the law was enacted, a patchwork of state environmental standards created competitive disadvantages for states looking to improve environmental quality. The burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in 1969—which at the time was one of the most polluted rivers in the country—highlighted this need for a consistent federal law.

Advocates like Peter Van Tuyn, an environmental attorney in Alaska, believe that that the Clean Water Act needs to be strengthened, not weakened. “We need strong laws like the Clean Water Act to stop large mining projects from sending toxic waste downhill and impacting fish, as in the case of the Usibelli coal mine,” Tuyn said. “Industry will otherwise have little incentive to protect wild salmon and other aquatic life.”

The Clean Water Act has done much to protect industries that rely on clean water, such as tourism, fishing and hunting. According to the EPA, over half of the nation’s waterways are impaired, meaning that the waterway does not meet the water quality standards of the Clean Water Act and the state. It is imperative that the EPA have the right to veto permits that would cause harm to our nation’s waterways.


Interviews, photographs, and b-roll video available upon request. Please contact Sandra Diaz,